Take Dunn’s warnings about boom seriously

November 28, 2018

State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn is hardly known as a tree-hugging environmentalist. That’s why his recent warnings about the oil and gas boom’s impact on New Mexico’s environment should be taken seriously.

The GOP-turned-Libertarian — the same guy who brought the oil field pump jack back to the State Land Office in downtown Santa Fe to show off oil’s importance — is saying plainly that oil and gas companies are damaging Southern New Mexico, which is in the middle of an oil and gas boom.

To that end, Dunn sent a letter to Ken McQueen, secretary of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, alleging hundreds of violations by oil and gas operators on state lands. These include Dunn’s concerns about more than 500 nonoperating wells that companies have plugged without cleaning the surroundings. The fault, Dunn wrote, is that the state Oil Conservation Division is failing to enforce environmental regulations.

What’s more, Dunn claims that oil and gas companies are disregarding state trust lands and trespassing on public property without proper permits. He lists a number of alleged violations, including putting down pipelines without authorization, damaging archaeological sites, dumping produced water (the water used in drilling) and illegally selling water. There are even taco stands operating without permission on state lands. His comments came in the context of a news release in which Dunn announced a $3.2 million settlement with a company over claims of trespass.

Dunn as state land commissioner has been fierce in protecting the lands under his purview, going after polluters, trespassers and even challenging the federal government over right of way along the border. He does this all while seeking to fulfill his constitutional responsibility, raising money for the beneficiaries of the trust. Those are the public schools, seven universities, New Mexico Military Institute, New Mexico School for the Deaf, New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, three hospitals, correctional facilities, water conservation projects and public building construction and repair. In 2017, the State Land Office’s efforts brought in $664 million.

Dunn is pointing out that New Mexico should not sacrifice its environment in the long term for dollars made today. Here’s what he said: “The rush to make a quick buck is coming at the expense of New Mexico’s environment. Our agency and the OCD need to step up to protect our state and its lands from being damaged by the California-style gold rush happening in Southeast New Mexico.”

He is right. Land Commissioner-elect Stephanie Garcia Richard made better stewardship of the environment a cornerstone of her campaign, and Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham has made it clear she supports oil and gas, but not at the expense of the environment.

Both women recognize the need for New Mexico to move to an energy economy that uses renewables as a transition to life after fossil fuels, which will boost the state’s economy long-term and help the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With his letter of complaint, Dunn is laying the groundwork for the state to take more aggressive action against the oil and gas industry, as needed. Good for him.

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